Regulatory Policy 2.0 – The Alternative

[Second of a two-part Blog Post]

Yesterday I suggested that our existing 3-legged approach to regulation (separation, compliance, transparency) not only failed to prevent Madoff, but positively enabled him.

Today I’ll talk about an alternative.

Until last weekend, when the world discovered Madoff hadn’t bought stocks for 13 years (TrustMatters readers heard about it 5 weeks earlier here), the consensus was Madoff was so sophisticated no one could follow him.

Turns out sophistication itself was the ultimate scam. Madoff built a Potemkin village. He knew what a trading system and a hedge fund should look like, and gave us the appearance of one.

In fact, it was just another Nigerian Ministry scam.  Give me your bank account numbers. and I’ll make you rich. Trust me.

The SEC, like all regulators, relied largly on three mechanical approaches:

• structural separations
• compliance processes
• disclosure.

All were built around the modern sophisticated financial world. What they entirely missed was the human element of any great scam. Hide stuff in the most obvious of places. Utterly believe your own lies. Get the con to focus on your spiel while you swap the pea out of the walnut.

They missed the “man” in con man.

If past is prologue, as unfortunately it usually is, there will be a firestorm of protest and we will end up, through the best efforts of Congress, Fox News and the tabloids, with More of The Same. The same trio of regulations that Madoff manipulated. And it will cost billions and billions more in regulation and in stifled economic sub-optimization.

So what’s the answer?

Human-based regulation–beyond structure, processes, disclosure. Regulation 2.0.

Human-based regulation recognizes and embraces three human traits:

1. We live up (or down) to expectations
2. People are infinitely creative–regulators must be as well
3. Selective audits plus severe consequences both inform and deter people.

Set clear expectations. We cannot allow confusion between “ethics” and “compliance.” The phrase “but it was legal” cannot be permitted to be the end of conversation. Regulators have to continue dialogue with non-lawyer citizenry, stay in touch with norms and mores. Most important—they must have a visceral sense of the “rightness” that their agencies were built on in the first place, and unflinchingly convey that sense of mission and expectations to their industries.

Harness Creativity. Regulators can find role models in the audit profession, the IRS, and the GAO. They can look farther afield at successful police departments, e.g. New York City’s counter-terrorism operation. The ultimate objective can never be to just ensure compliance—it must be to fulfill mission.

Visiting RIA offices to review papers too easily becomes a bureaucrat’s exercise. We need regulators who think like cops, who are inherently suspicious, who demand proof, who creatively out-think the Madoff du jour. (Harry Markopolis’ testimony in Congress—the second part—gives excellent examples of this, epitomized by the simple, “is something funny going on around here? Here’s my card—call me if you see anything suspicious.”)

Selectively audit, severely penalize. Auditors and the IRS have excellent track records doing selective audits. You don’t need to examine every book—just let every bookkeeper know that their books might be the ones examined next.

Combined with the public announcement of severe consequences, this approach both tells the industry what behavior is expected, and says they are accountable to the public they serve. It’s like a police perp walk—it publicly shames and humiliates.

(From this point of view, the continued absence of a perp walk for Mr. Madoff, together with the absence of any consequences thus far, sends the wrong message. It says “old” regulation still holds sway: he can stay in his comfortable digs until the legal process grinds its way to some determination of whether or not he has committed a violation of a particular law).

Madoff’s scam was old-school, Nigerian-Ministry, thuggish. That doesn’t mean the SEC employs incompetent people. It does mean, however, that they are toiling under an inadequate philosophy of regulation.

We will not regain trust in our institutions until we remember that trust is, at its heart, a human thing—and begin to act that way.

Regulation 2.0 is a good start.